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Niskanen GWOTG

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Caps Survive The Rangers on Niskanen’s OT Tally

Posted on 18 October 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Matt Niskanen scored 2:18 into overtime to give the Washington Capitals a 4-3 victory over the young and determined New York Rangers on Wednesday night at Capital One Arena. The triumph snapped a two game losing streak for the Caps and improved their record on this young 2018-19 season to 3-2-1.

What follows are 11 thoughts on the Caps after their win over the Blueshirts.

This was not a pretty performance, at all, but the Capitals star players stepped up to get two points, once again. Evgeny Kuznetsov drew three defenders to himself to set up the game winning goal, Alex Ovechkin notched two power play goals, John Carlson had a goal and two helpers, All Star Nicklas Backstrom had two assists, and Braden Holtby made 29 saves. The Caps are top heavy, but these stars very often deliver the goods.

The Rangers skated hard on Wednesday after playing on Tuesday night at home against Colorado. Washington didn’t jump on rookie Coach David Quinn’s squad early and that allowed New York to hang around and nearly steal a win. The Capitals simply had more talent than the young Rangers and that was the difference.

Coach Todd Reirden noted in his post game presser that the Capitals had been working on their neutral zone play and face-offs since the loss to the Leafs on Saturday night. The Caps were 35-31 on draws and tallied twice off of wins at the dot. They did, however, give up a goal on a lost face-off. Winning draws is important, especially for a team that has high end skill with the puck.

One thing I really didn’t like was the defensive zone coverage by Washington. It was too loose and that forced the Holtbeast to make a lot of big saves on rebounds. It’s only October, so pond hockey and a lack of defense is obvious in many NHL games, but the Capitals proved last spring they know how to play in their own end when it matters. There’s no way the Caps are able to play with that type of intensity on the back end for 82 games and then the post season, but you’d like to see better efforts in coverage around the Washington net. Too many opponents have had room to roam free in the first six games.

Washington did clamp down once this game was tied with 9:35 remaining. After that power play goal, the Rangers did not register another shot on net over the last 11:53 of this affair. Meanwhile, the Capitals generated seven shots on goal, including Niskanen’s rebound winner.

The Caps fourth line trio each played about seven minutes in this contest. That line took two of the four Capitals penalties, including Nathan Walker’s offensive zone holding infraction that led to the Rangers game tying tally. Walker is fast and pesky, but he has to be smarter in that situation and not take a penalty with a one goal lead in period three. Bad plays like that will put you out of the lineup quickly. All Walker had to do in that instance was to keep moving his feet and then he would not have had to hold Neal Pionk.

Don’t look now, but Ovi has six goals in six games already. The Gr8 is just a special player and his shot is so hard to stop. Even King Henrik Lundqvist was surprised at how quickly Ovechkin got off his shots against him.

The third line has had a lot of trouble this season, so it was good to see Brett Connolly, Lars Eller, and Andre Burakovsky have some good shifts, especially in the first 30 minutes. They were not as noticeable in the second half of the game, so that needs to be addressed. Burakovsky has looked a little slow and tentative in his six outings, although this was his best one yet, but that’s not saying much and #65 needs to start producing.

After the loss to the Leafs, there were many in the Canadian and National media talking about Toronto being a serious Cup contender. Yes, they are good with a top three center lineup of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Nazem Kadri, but none of them have won a playoff series yet, so let’s stop focusing on the parade on Yonge Street. They are a talented team, but as we’ve seen with the Caps, it takes a major defensive commitment to get to the Promised Land. It remains to be seen if the Leafs have that in them. There is a big difference between October pond hockey and the playoff grind. Eller was right to point out to the media that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are the gold standard and then things go from there for the Caps in ranking their opponents. The Penguins have won three Stanley Cups in the Crosby/Malkin era. Kadri has shown that he’s good at making some iffy hits and running his mouth.

Both teams went two for four on the power play. The two goals allowed by the Capitals came on deflections or crazy bounces with traffic in front. Again, the Caps must move their feet on defense better to prevent those type of goals.

Kuznetsov is great. He continues to play like he has the puck on a string and he is proving that he’s one of the best players in the NHL. His on ice awareness reminds me a lot of Wayne Gretzky.

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Ovi Kuzy goal celebration

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Kuznetsov Dazzles in Caps 5-2 Victory over Vegas

Posted on 10 October 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Evgeny Kuznetsov put on a show notching four points, including three amazing setups for goals, two of which went to Alexander Ovechkin, and Braden Holtby was superb in net with 29 saves to lead the Capitals to a 5-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday night at Capital One Arena. It was the teams’ first meeting since the Caps skated Lord Stanley’s Cup at T-Mobile Arena back in June.

The win, which followed a nice rally in Pittsburgh to steal a point last Thursday night and then five days off, moves the Capitals to 2-0-1 (five points) on the season. They will face the New Jersey Devils at The Rock on Thursday night at 7 pm.

What follows are the highlights and analysis of a typical October game where defense and hitting were optional, most of the time.

It was clear that Coach Gerard Gallant’s squad was fired up for this one and they fought mightily throughout the contest, but at the end of the night, they lost for the same reason they were defeated in the Cup Final – they simply don’t have the high end offensive talent that Washington possesses. General Manager George McPhee has put together a nice team that works hard and plays their system, but he does not have an Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, or Nicklas Backstrom in his lineup. But not many teams in the NHL have that either. The 2017-18 Stanley Cup Champions are a very talented bunch and they still have room to improve. As the Great Count Floyd would say, “That’s scary stuff, Kids!”

For the last couple of years, I rode Kuznetsov hard in my blogs because I knew that with his talent, he had the ability to take over hockey games, like we saw from him in the World Juniors shortly after he was drafted. Kuzy did just that this past spring and was a major reason the Capitals won the Cup. He moved into the superstar category with his play, leading the NHL in post season points (32). The Russian center has now moved into elite status with the way he’s dominating out on the rink this October. His two-way game continues to improve and because he’s been shooting the puck more often and scoring goals, additional passing lanes are opening up for him. Those two feeds to Ovechkin for goals were just sensational. He’s a joy to watch.

Ovechkin is now up to four goals in three games and is really skating well. Ovi is so clutch when the Caps need it and with seven shots on goal, he easily could’ve notched a hat trick on Wednesday. After re-inventing his game last season with more speed, the Gr8 has picked up right where he left off.

Brett Connolly has been called upon to take Tom Wilson’s spot during Willy’s suspension. On the Capitals first goal, which came on the power play, Conno makes a great hit in the corner to keep the puck alive. Brett doesn’t have #43’s size, but he can skate and isn’t afraid to put his body in on the wall. If he keeps playing like that, the loss of Wilson, which is big for Washington, is partially mitigated. Connolly had two assists in this affair.

Backstrom had a goal and an assist to give Nicky six points in three games. The Jakub Vrana-Backstrom-T.J. Oshie line makes the job of matchups for the opposing coach very difficult night in and night out.

Washington went two for four on the power play to continue its torrid start to the season (5 for 10). The Caps had some issues with generating speed out of their own zone on their first man advantage situation because Vegas was very aggressive with forechecking pressure, but once they figured that out and got things set up, the magic began. You won’t see two prettier passing plays than the goals by Kuznetsov and Backstrom.

Vegas has a lot of heart and they just kept coming in this game. Washington was quite sloppy, at times, especially in the second and third periods. The Golden Knights cut two goal leads to one puck twice and thought they had a third one to make it 4-3, but that marker was wiped out by a clear offside challenge by the Caps video brain trust (well done Stretch and Timmy!). The Caps need to be smarter with the lead, they were lazy in their own end on several occasions and in the neutral zone and offensive blue line they made some poor decisions with the biscuit. If the Holtbeast wasn’t so rock solid in net, and he also had some help from the iron, this game could’ve been tied in the final frame. Coach Todd Reirden will have some good video to show his squad what not to do with the lead in this one.

Goaltending is so important in hockey and Holtby showed, once again, why he’s one of the best in the NHL. #70 was dialed in and made some very difficult stops, especially on William Karlsson, look very routine. Holts will get Thursday off and without Philipp Grubauer in net anymore, it will be up to Pheonix Copley to show that he can be a viable backup when he makes his debut against the Devils. The Capitals need Copley to start 25 or so games so that the Holtbeast is well rested for the post season.

Dmitri Jaskin, acquired from the Blues via the waiver wire, played solidly on the fourth line with Nic Dowd and Devante Smith-Pelly. Jaskin has size and goes to the net. That line had several scoring chances and looks like it could have some nice chemistry.

This was a nice win and the Capitals are hard to beat in a wide open game with all of the scoring punch they have. This type of hockey will be prevalent until the New Year, and then everyone will buckle down and start gearing up for playoff hockey. The bad news for the rest of the league is that Washington showed last spring that they can pretty much play any style and come out on top these days.

Notes: The Caps lost the faceoff battle, 38-36, but Dowd went 8-5…shot attempts were 68-51 for Vegas. Shots on goal were 31-29, also for the Golden Knights…Brooks Orpik was rammed hard into the glass by William Carrier late in period one. #44, who eats rocks for breakfast, didn’t play the rest of the period and went down the tunnel, but he did return for the last 40 minutes…John Carlson (two assists) led the Caps in ice time with 25:55…Michal Kempny returned from a concussion to make his regular season debut and logged 16:41. He did take two penalties, though.

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Caps Bury Boston in Greatest Opening Night in Team History

Posted on 04 October 2018 by Ed Frankovic

We are the champions, my friends
And we’ll keep on fighting ’til the end
We are the champions
We are the champions
No time for losers
‘Cause we are the champions of the world

After 44 years of often times crushing defeats, the Washington Capitals players and fans were finally able to sing this legendary song together at Capital One Arena on Wednesday night in what was the greatest opening night in Caps history. The team was honored in a pregame ceremony that saw Alexander Ovechkin skate the Cup onto home ice to a thunderous ovation followed by an amazing video montage, and then the raising of the 2018 Stanley Cup Championship banner to the rafters.

To top it all off, the Capitals came out and buried the Boston Bruins, 7-0, to start the 2018-19 season in fine fashion.

Evgeny Kuznetsov notched two goals, Nicklas Backstrom had three assists, and Alex Ovechkin, T.J.Oshie, and John Carlson all had two points each while Braden Holtby stopped all 25 shots he faced in this affair. It was the 13th straight victory for the Caps over the B’s and more importantly, it gave Head Coach Todd Reirden his first NHL win in his debut as Washington’s bench boss.

This was a fun game and the fans, many of whom paid top dollar for tickets to attend this tilt, certainly received their money’s worth. The atmosphere was absolutely electric during the pregame ceremony and when Oshie scored just 24 seconds into the contest, it was apparent this was going to be Washington’s night. Kuznetsov followed that tally up just 83 seconds later on a power play goal right off of the face off and then the Caps exploded for three goals in the first seven and a half minutes of period two to put this one out of reach before the game’s midway point.

Below are my thoughts and analysis on the game and other impending Capitals issues:

Special Teams were a major key as the Caps went four for six on the power play and thwarted both of the Bruins man advantage situations. The Capitals are typically deadly with a manpower advantage and Boston certainly felt that in the season opener. Ovechkin and Carlson both tallied from the “Ovi spot” and Backstrom was just a magician on the ice dishing the biscuit around like he had the puck on a string. There is no doubt that if you take penalties against the Caps, you are going to pay the price. On the PK side of things, with Tom Wilson out 20 games due to suspension (more on that later), Devante Smith-Pelly stepped up and did a marvelous job while shorthanded and Reirden’s tactical change to add Kuzy to the mix paid off, as well. Evgeny logged 1:02 of penalty killing time and he helped the Caps to generate four shots on goal while down a skater, including a golden chance for Nathan Walker (Brooks Orpik had a nice pass on that sequence, too). The Caps penalty killing was somewhat of a weakness last season, but there is cause for optimism after game one, although they will face one of the best power plays in the league in the Penguins on Thursday night in Pittsburgh at 7 pm.

The Capitals played a really solid first period and big credit goes to the defense for moving the puck well out of their own end, which allowed the Caps to dominate possession. Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey, who were both rookies last season, played superbly on Wednesday. Coach Reirden was especially pleased with Bowey, who was paired with Orpik, given that this was his first meaningful hockey game in a long time. Even with Michal Kempny out due to injury (concussion – but skated for 15 minutes on Wednesday morning), the blue line was really solid. Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, and Matt Niskanen were stellar.

I spent a good part of my summer watching reruns of the Capitals Stanley Cup run and the thing that really stood out to me was the commitment level of the players, especially the forwards, to maintain their gap control through the neutral and defensive zones on the back check. The game winning goal against Pittsburgh was the result of that type of effort since it was Kuznetsov who knocked the puck off of Sidney Crosby’s stick before he went in and scored on a breakaway to send Washington to the Eastern Conference Finals. In the season opener, the gap control and commitment to back checking/pressure was still there. There were lots of sensational plays in this contest, but to me the one that stood out the most was DSP hustling and getting his stick in the passing lane on a potential golden chance for the Bruins. This came late in the second period with the score 6-0! Coach Reirden smiled when asked about that play and said everyone on the bench really noticed it. He also stated that this team is accountable and really plays for each other. In the post season the Capitals moved their feet and had a focus on taking the body, but there is no way to keep that style of physical play going through all 82 games and then the post season. However, you can continue to move your feet when you don’t have the puck and if you do that well, you are in position to steal or intercept the disc night after night and keep your opponents off of the score sheet. In game one, the Capitals skated hard on the back check and as a result, they dominated the game taking away time and space from some top notch players like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak.

Goaltending is so important in hockey and even though the Caps grabbed a two puck lead early, the Holtbeast was still needed. His best save of the night was on Bergeron, who was in all alone on #70, in period one. Boston didn’t get a ton of quality shots because of the great play in front of Holtby, but Braden did have a few ten bell saves in this tilt. He simply owns the Bruins and it was his first regular season shutout since 2016-17. The Holtbeast did have two shutouts in the playoffs, games six and seven against Tampa in the Eastern Conference Final. Game six was arguably the best playoff game I’ve ever seen Washington play.

With Kempny out due to injury and Wilson suspended on Wednesday for the first 20 games (eligible to return on November 21st), there were available spots in the lineup for new players. The aforementioned Bowey stepped up on the blue line and Nathan Walker and Nic Dowd received sweaters up front. Dowd filled the fourth line center role vacated by Jay Beagle (signed by Vancouver for four years at $3M per season) and scored a sweet backhanded tally in the high slot to make it 4-0 at the 6:13 mark of period two. DSP made a nice keep in at the point as Washington played their aggressive fore checking system perfectly on that goal scoring instance.

Willy, who will likely appeal the length of the suspension, is going to be missed because of his physical presence and talent. He’s helped make the top line with Ovi and Kuzy one of the best in the league. He is also a great penalty killer and gets in the collective heads of the Capitals opponents. He is a major plus to the Caps over 99% of the time, but hits like the one against St. Louis that led to the suspension need to be taken out of his game. As a result of his absence, the Capitals will have to play more of a finesse and high skill style early on, but the good news is the first half of the NHL season is nowhere near as physical as it is after January 1st, so if he was going to be out, this is the period where his loss should work best. As Backstrom said afterwards, the team needs Wilson, but it is also an opportunity for other players, such as Walker and Brett Connolly, to show that they can step up and minimize the impact of #43’s absence.

In summary, this was about as perfect of an opening night as you could get for the Capitals organization. The fans were energized from the time they walked into the arena and the players fed off of that energy with a quick start. Hearing We Are The Champions on the jumbotron and from the fans was special, and Backstrom summed it up best when he noted, “It was an amazing feeling, I want to experience that again.”

Cue the Osh Babe and the fans with the “Back to Back” chant.

Notes: Shot attempts were 64-53 for the Caps. Shots on goal were 37-25, Washington…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 24:06. Djoos logged 17:23 as #74’s partner at even strength. Niskanen (21:48) and Orlov (22:00) were a dominant duo in this game…the Caps were a putrid 19-41 from the dot, but one of the wins resulted in Kuznetsov’s first goal. Face offs are an area that will need improvement going forward. Beagle is no longer around to take the key defensive zone draws…Tuukka Rask has still never won at Capital One Arena…Marchand jumped Eller with just over six minutes left because he was being a baby and didn’t like Tiger’s celebration after his goal that made it 7-0. Lars was cut when Marchand ripped off #20’s helmet. Eller also never took off his gloves but still received the fighting major. I imagine Wilson took note of Marchand’s pest-like sequence and will file it away for reference for future games against Boston.

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Connolly SCF

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Caps Championship Thoughts and More Breakdown Day Coverage

Posted on 14 June 2018 by Ed Frankovic

It’s been exactly a week since the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup and the vibe I’ve been getting around the DMV is that people are still basking in the afterglow of the victory and are dying for more information and news on the team. It’s pretty apparent that this group of players, coaches, training staff, and managers will be heroes, at least in this part of the country, for the rest of their lives. Owner Ted Leonsis and Team President Dick Patrick have put their heart and soul, plus a lot of money, into this organization over the years and are finally being rewarded with a Championship.

Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby, Coach Barry Trotz, and the others on this team have silenced the critics with this amazing season that included a Metropolitan Division title, when most people had them barely getting into the post season or not making it at all. Once game three of the Columbus series began, they went on an incredible 16-6 run in which they overcame a games deficit in all four rounds to capture Lord Stanley’s Cup. It was a remarkable display of grit, toughness, perseverance, and desire to do what had never been done by the franchise before.

There were many moments along the way where they seemed destined to fail, but somehow found a way to push through. Columbus hits the post in game three of the first overtime that would’ve given them a 3-0 series lead before Lars Eller’s magical goal off of a Brett Connolly shot. Tom Kuhnhackl hits the post in overtime of game six before Evgeny Kuznetsov takes that super pass from Ovechkin to finally slay the Penguins dragon. The Caps give up a two game series lead to Tampa with three straight losses, but shut out the Bolts over the final 159 minutes of the series to storm into the Cup Final. In game two of the Stanley Cup Final, with 1:59 remaining and a one goal lead, the Holtbeat makes “The Save” on Alex Tuch to prevent overtime and propel Washington to four straight wins and hockey’s ultimate prize.

It was clear that the tightness of this team provided the foundation that allowed them to rise up and seize the critical moments in the postseason that the Washington Capitals had never done before, in any era. It was legendary, that’s the best way for me to describe it and as each moment since has transpired, I am appreciating more and more what they’ve accomplished. Many in Caps Nation surely feel the same way. Thank you, 2018 Washington Capitals.

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Wednesday was breakdown day at Kettler IcePlex, as I chronicled yesterday in this blog, but as promised, below is the transcript of a one on one exclusive interview WNST was able to obtain with Connolly, who came to Washington in 2016 looking for an opportunity after stints with Tampa and Boston, and has completely seized it.

WNST: You’ve been telling me for two years since you’ve been here that you guys have a good team, but the way you guys played and came together, that was amazing.

Connolly:  Yeah, it was amazing, such a good group, such a committed group, such a highly skilled group. We really just came together at the right time, especially after that Pittsburgh series where we first really believed we could win this. It’s such a big moment for all of us, we’re all just so happy that we could ultimately get this done for all of our fans, for our families, it was such a special moment.

WNST: Coach Trotz told us when he came out to Baltimore that this team this year, whenever he asked someone to move around in the lineup, that he received no push back. That seems to really speak to the type of team you had this year?

Connolly: Yeah, I think you have to be playing the guys that are playing well, whether you’re a veteran guy or a rookie guy, it doesn’t matter. I think we were just cheering for whoever was in, whoever was getting more ice time that night. If a guy wasn’t playing well we’d pick him up, he’d ultimately change his game and they’d figure it out. It was just a good environment to be in, everyone was playing their best hockey at the right time of the year.

WNST: The way you, Jakub Vrana, and Andre Burakovsky played in the playoffs, all three of you guys have always had high skill, but the way the three of you took the body, were in the proper position on the walls, it seemed like that was the biggest jump you guys made and was a big part of the team’s success. Would you agree with that?

Connolly: Yes, I think so. I think I got a little taste of [the playoffs] last year, I didn’t play a whole lot, there were a lot of other guys deserving of that chance and I just wasn’t, but I think I got a little confidence from that, just knowing what to expect. I think we all really just played solid, just did what was asked of us, we didn’t really care. I think overall a lot of our games got better throughout the playoffs. It was ultimately why a lot of us were successful and had good stats and helped the team win.

WNST: It seems like every time an obstacle was thrown at you guys, you overcame it. First one, game three against Columbus, you score a goal that would’ve made it 2-0, it comes back on an offside, but on the game winning goal in double overtime, you make a smart play by shooting quickly and the puck goes in off of Lars Eller for the team’s first win.

Connolly: Simple, but that’s the playoffs, really simple. I had a couple of those in the postseason, just need a break sometimes and I just tried to shoot it as quick as I could and as hard as I could. You know we were earning all of our breaks in the playoffs, we were working for each other and I think we legitimately deserved everything we got.

WNST: The last goal of the Stanley Cup playoffs, you didn’t score the goal, but it was your shot, with again Lars going to the net. This team did that the whole playoffs.

Connolly: Yeah, just the same thing. Lars was hungry all playoffs, he’s a guy that’s going to the net all of the time. He really, really elevated his game the whole playoffs. Really awesome to see, he really turned a lot of heads. Such a big moment for the city, for me, him, and Burkie, whoever was on the ice, at that point.

WNST: You’ve been here two years, I grew up here, I’ve been around this team for 44 years. I don’t know how much you realize what legends you guys are going to be around this area to finally bring a Cup here. This team was gone in 1982, but for the Save the Caps. Then in 2004 it is gone again if Ovi doesn’t comes along. You guys now go and win a Cup and have put it over the top.

Connolly: It’s pretty cool. We saw the support at the parade. People are on cloud nine and it’s amazing to see everybody so happy. It’s really cool to be a part of something like that. To put so many smiles on so many people’s faces. There’s been so much good support the last couple of years I’ve been here, but that parade was insane and it was something that I’ll never forget and a lot of guys will never forget.

WNST: What are you going to do with the Cup?

Connolly: I’m going to go home to British Columbia, Prince George, just take it around town. I don’t know what we’ll do, but just try to get as many people to see it as possible.

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Connolly is definitely one of the better interviews on the team and I’ve appreciated his insight since he joined the Caps last season. He has worked hard to improve and he’s made General Manager Brian MacLellan and his scouting staff look super smart for bringing him to town. Kudos, Brett.

In yesterday’s blog, I failed to mention that Kuznetsov’s injury from the Brayden McNabb hit in game two was to his left shoulder. Fortunately, Kuzy is a smaller version of the Russian Machine that Never Breaks and came back in game three to lead his team to victory with an outstanding performance. All season long, in this blog and in my radio sessions with WNST owner Nestor Aparacio, I showered number 92 with tough love. He is an immensely talented hockey player who I knew, if he took his game to another level and played the right way, would be such a key to the Capitals finally breaking through into the later rounds of the playoffs. Boy did he do just that, and more. Evgeny led all players in scoring in the playoffs and he delivered when the team really needed him to do so. He has moved himself from the very good category to the elite/superstar level with his postseason performance. He earned every bit of the $7.8M he received from the Caps this past season.

The Caps now have a short turnaround for training camp, which will start around September 10th or so. It’s already June 14th, so there will be less time to get ready. Jay Beagle, who has won championships at the ECHL, AHL, and now the NHL level did point out that the short time to get ready isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Beags said that in the three summers following his ECHL and two AHL triumphs, he was more motivated to train and that he didn’t have to work hard to prevent losing focus like he’s done when the team has been eliminated earlier in the spring. So it would appear that this summer the Caps players do have that going for them….which is nice.

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Caps Breakdown Day News, Nuggets, and Analysis

Posted on 13 June 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals held breakdown day on Wednesday afternoon and it was obviously the best one ever, given that this year’s session followed the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup victory. The players were clearly tired from two grueling months of hockey and then the post triumph celebrations, but were extremely happy.

Here are some of the major takeaways from the day at Kettler IcePlex:

Alexander Ovechkin, now clean cut thanks to his Gillette sponsorship, is a very happy man, and rightly so. The victory has clearly brought back the old Ovi that we saw when he was younger before some of the angry and hating national and even local media constantly crushed him forcing him to withdraw some of the best sides of his personality from public view. On Wednesday, the Gr8 answered questions for 30 minutes going above and beyond the call of duty. Ovi started by stating “I still can’t believe we won, I still can’t believe we did it. Right now we are realizing how special this win was.” He also added that “We lost some key guys last year, but all of the new guys played unbelievable.” Ovi noted that this was the best team he ever played on and whenever someone got hurt, felt bad, or were suspended, people stepped up. “It was a special group.” He also praised former General Manager George McPhee for “drafting half of the group” and ended with a very classy “Thanks George for what you did here.”

Nicklas Backstrom suffered two fractures in his right index finger in game five against Pittsburgh. He said he will not need surgery. Clearly Nicky was still hurting when he came back in the lineup after missing four games and to perform the way he did with that injury – shutting down the other team’s top center in each of the Tampa and Vegas series – is the stuff of legends. Backy will have his Cup celebration in his hometown in Sweden.

Brooks Orpik injured his hand in game two of the Columbus series and also had the tip of his right pinky finger detached when Erik Haula violently slashed him at the end of game two in the Stanley Cup final. Despite the injuries, Orpik played some of his best hockey in this postseason. When asked about the improvement in his skating this past season, Brooks noted that he is always tweaking his off season training regimen to seek improvement, but he also pointed out this was the first season in a few years where he did not have any ailments that impacted his wheels. Orpik told me he’d find out on Friday if he needed surgery on his hand.

Coach Barry Trotz had initial new contract discussions with General Manager Brian MacLellan on Wednesday morning. The Stanley Cup winning coach says he wants to be back because he likes this group while also stating that the area and setup has been good for his family situation. When asked if the rest of the entire coaching staff would be back next year, he said that is unknown, at this time.

John “Big Game” Carlson has not had any contract talks with the Caps yet, but said he loves this team and would love to be back, but there are a lot of factors involved. He will be having his Stanley Cup celebration in the DC area (his wife is from the DMV). The Capitals have an advantage in negotiations since they can sign number 74 for eight years, while others can only offer seven campaigns. There is no doubt that “Big Game” is the number one offseason unrestricted free agent priority for MacLellan and the Caps. The salary cap number for 2018-19 will be out from the league on Monday, June 18th and the higher it goes, the better it is for Washington ($82M would be really nice). Backstrom, when asked about Carlson stated, “John Carlson just keeps getting better and better. It’s impressive. Hopefully he stays here.” I’ll say this now, just like I did about T.J. Oshie last year, Pay the Man! He’s a legitimate number one defenseman and easily in the top ten in the NHL, in my opinion. You don’t let stud blue liners like “Big Game” Carlson leave. Losing him would be close to the magnitude of the Scott Stevens departure back in 1990.

Defensemen Michal Kempny and Dmitry Orlov gave a lot of credit to assistant coach Todd Rierden for helping them improve their respective games. Kempny noted that he had little confidence when he came over in February in a trade from Chicago and that Rierden immediately helped him regain it. The Czech defensemen stated that he had some bad games in the postseason, but that Rierden was always there to give him some keys to turning things around in the next contest. Kempny, who was very vocal about coming back because the Caps have “a great group of players, coaches, and trainers,” is an unrestricted free agent and given that he played as the number four defensemen in the postseason, he’s high up on the contract pecking order for MacLellan and the Caps. He only has 103 games of NHL experience, so that could help keep his price lower (he made $900, 000 in 2017-18 and will get a decent raise). Orlov, who had his hand badly injured in the World Championships in the spring of 2014 and missed the entire first season of the Trotz era (2014-15), said he was unsure he’d ever be able to play again at a high level. Rierden has certainly helped Dima out, but I also give Orlov a ton of credit for constantly working and striving to be better. It’s amazing how far he’s come since the 2016 playoffs where he struggled against the Flyers and Penguins. He’s a quality blue liner that breaks the puck out of his own zone incredibly well.

Oshie said he hasn’t won much since he was younger, so this Stanley Cup victory has been very exciting. Courtesy of the great Tarik El-Bashir, T.J. said he was healthiest at the start of the Stanley Cup Final. He won’t require any procedures this offseason. The Osh Babe, who is one of the most positive people you’ll ever meet, told Tarik that “I didn’t even need Advil” as the SCF started.

Tom “Future Captain” Wilson noted that he played up and down the lineup this season, but said when he played 10 games straight with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, instead of just one or two, his game really took off. Willy talked at length about how close this team was (is), but credited former Cap Justin Williams for encouraging the team to have fun and said it helped loosen the team up and bond them. Top line Tommy says he’s loved his five years here, stated he’s always done whatever he can to help the team, but also said there will be an element of business this summer for him (he’s a restricted free agent). Like Orlov and Evgeny Kuznetsov and some others on this squad, it’s amazing how much they have improved in the four years this coaching staff has been in place. The players clearly get the majority of the credit, but you can’t discount the way the coaches have enabled these players to blossom.

On the netminding front, courtesy of Isabelle Khurshudyan of The Washington Post, MacLellan said Philipp Grubauer wants to be a number one goaltender, but he’d like to keep both Grubi and Braden Holtby, be he’s going to explore a trade for Grubauer so he can do his thing. There is no doubt that the Capitals don’t win the Metropolitan Division without the stellar play of number 31 this past season. You need two good goalies in this day and age in the NHL to make it to the postseason. If Grubauer, who is a restricted free agent departs via trade, there could be a big dropoff to third string, Phoenix Copley. 2015 1st round pick Ilya Samsonov will be coming over to North America to play this fall, but he’ll need time in Hershey to become acclimated to the smaller rink. Bottom line, the best scenario for the Caps is to keep Grubauer, but potential salary cap room and a good trade return will likely be too hard to pass up. Goaltending coach Scott Murray and his staff, to include Olie Kolzig, will need to really get the other goalies in the system ready quickly should the German keeper move on.

Jay Beagle, when asked why the Caps won this year, pointed out that the Capitals “built their game all year and peaked at the right time. In past years we peaked in December and Janaury and then tried to hold onto it.” When questioned about Ovechkin not letting go of the Cup very much since they won, he stated that Ovi is invited to his Cup celebration, but he doubted the Gr8 would come to the Beagle farm. On Trotz, number 83 said “He’s always been a great coach since he’s been here, has brought in great people around him, and I feel like we have been the most prepared team in the league.” The unrestricted free agent, who has now won championships at the ECHL, AHL, and NHL level, hasn’t had any contract discussions yet and stated “obviously, I have to wait until the big guys get settled first” before receiving an offer. The hard working total team guy stated he could wait until after July 1st and that he’d leave things up to MacLellan. When I asked him if he’d leave if some team came along and threw money at him, said he’d have to see what was best for his family. The fourth line center who is great on faceoffs and the PK made $1.75M in each of the last three seasons.

As I wrote in my Cup winning blog, players such as Brett Connolly, Jakub Vrana, and Andre Burakovsky really upped their compete level, especially on the physical side of the house, and were important factors in the Caps playoff run. Burakovsky told El-Bashir that after three hand injuries over the past couple of years that he plans to have a conversation with CCM this summer about getting more substantial gloves. He told Tarik that two of the injuries could’ve been avoided with more protection. Washington will need each of these three guys to continue to progress, as they’ve done so far under Lane Lambert’s tutelage, if they are going to have a chance to repeat. Connolly, who for two years has confidently told me that the Caps have a very good team, summed up why this Championship ultimately happened for this squad.

“It was amazing, such a good group, such a committed group, such a highly skilled group. We really just came together at the right time, especially after that Pittsburgh series where we first really said we could win this. It’s such a big moment for all of us, we’re all just so happy that we could ultimately get this done for all of our fans, for our families, it was such a special moment.”

That quote from Connolly really summed up this team, who will forever be legends around this area, in a nutshell.

Notes: Matt Niskanen, when asked about all of the celebrations, said “It was great to see Brooks Orpik let his hair down.” So many players mentioned how business like number 44 is and that they don’t often get to see that side of one of the biggest leaders on the Caps…Alex Chiasson, who scored a huge goal to open the scoring in the game six triumph that closed out the Penguins, was hoping to come back to the Caps next season, especially given his close friendship that he has developed with Ovechkin, which apparently started from playing cards on the plane together…Beagle is leaving town on Thursday and noted it would be good to get back to reality…I’ll post a full transcript of my exclusive one on one session with Connolly out at WNST.NET on Thursday night…Backstrom, when asked about the team possibly breaking up, “It sucks, but when you look back on this 10, 15 years from now, we’ll always have this special group.”

Photo credit to Jacquelyn Martin of the Associated Press.

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Caps win Cup

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Caps End 44-Year Drought With Stanley Cup Win

Posted on 08 June 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals have won the Stanley Cup!!!

Pardon my French, but 44 years of futility is freaking over!

There will be no more doubting Conn Smythe Trophy Award winner Alexander Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom or Braden Holtby or General Manager Brian MacLellan or Coach Barry Trotz or Brooks Orpik and on and on down the list of Washington Capitals players, coaches, and managers. This is truly an incredible group of people who bonded together and showed that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They have made a long suffering fan base very proud and the Baltimore-Washington area will NEVER EVER forget this cast of champions!

As for the Stanley Cup clinching game itself, WOW!

The Caps jumped out to 1-0 and 2-1 leads, saw Vegas tie the game on a tally that sure looked like goalie interference and then surge ahead very late in period two with a power play goal. The Golden Knights had a 3-2 advantage after 40 minutes in a very hotly contested physical affair and had their eyes on sending things back to Capital One Arena down just three games to two.

Previous Washington teams might’ve folded, at that point, and started contemplating that game six in DC on Sunday night, but not the 2018 Washington Capitals. This club came out with a passion in period three and fought tooth and nail to get the equalizer, which came from an incredible individual effort by Devante Smith-Pelly to notch his 7th goal of the postseason after Orpik made an outstanding keep in at the offensive blue line to set the tally up. That marker came with 10:08 remaining and the Caps kept the hammer down.

With 7:37 to go, Luca Sbisa turned the puck over to Andre Burakovsky behind his own net and Burkie fed Brett Connolly alone in the slot. Conno fired on net and the puck squeezed through Marc-Andre Fleury’s pads and Lars Eller, who applied the fore check pressure to set up the turnover after a smart dump in by Michal Kempny, grabbed the disc and deposited it into the cage for what would be the first ever Stanley Cup clinching goal for the Capitals and his seventh of the post season, as well.

Imagine that, sevens were wild in the third period, in Vegas??!!

Washington had 13 of the first 18 shots on goal in period three to storm the castle and take a 4-3 lead.

From there, the Capitals went into their 1-1-3 defensive posture and really didn’t give Vegas any quality chances, despite six Golden Knights shots on goal. Any attempts that made it through were gobbled up by Holtby (28 saves), who kept this a one goal game early in period three by gloving a top shelf wrister from David Perron in the slot. It was a big stop and nearly as important as “The Save” in game two, because if the Caps go down two pucks there, then a game six would very likely have occurred.

Backstrom (1 assist) had a chance to end the series with an empty net tally with under a minute to go, but somehow missed the cage invoking memories of Esa Tikkanen not scoring in game two of the 1998 Stanley Cup Final. But Nicky’s teammates wouldn’t allow the miss to bite the team in the rear and the Caps killed off the remainder of the clock and celebrated wildly when it was over, led by their very emotional captain.

This team won the Cup because it learned to play defense better than any other Capitals squad in the Ovechkin era. Washington listened to the coaching staff and walled off the front of their net regularly in the post season. They received outstanding goaltending from the Holtbeast, who along with Evgeny Kuznetsov (32 playoff points), could’ve won the Conn Smythe Trophy, based on their on ice production.

But the Gr8 (power play goal, his NHL leading 15th tally of the 2018 playoffs) definitely deserved the MVP trophy for his incredible leadership. Who can forget the Ovechkin line, “We’re going to Columbus to win two games and bring this series tied back to DC” in the first round? Time after time he scored the big goal (first goal in game 7 in Tampa) or made a great back check and pass to win a series (Pittsburgh, game 6) or blocked a shot and dove to clear a puck at an important juncture (SCF game two). Ovi led by example on and off of the ice. He made it clear before game five that the team shouldn’t be talking about celebrations or any of the stuff that comes with winning because they hadn’t won anything yet. Simply put, all playoffs long, Alex talked the talk and then backed it up by walking the walk.

Seeing his emotions as he was given the Cup from Commissioner Gary Bettman was incredible, then watching him skate around with Lord Stanley and pass it to Backstrom is a memory that Capitals fans will remember forever. Two players who former General Manager George McPhee drafted and built the franchise around finally made it to the promised land after 11 years of failures.

As Ovi and Nicky will tell you, this wasn’t about them, though, this was about a team that picked each other up through injuries, suspensions, mistakes, adversity, and questionable officiating along the way. You can go up and down the lineup and point to contributions each player made.

  • Kuznetsov dominated with his skating and became a superstar this spring. He took his game to a whole new level and backed up the big contract he received last summer.
  • T. J. Oshie did just about everything you could ask for from scoring big goals (see game six vs. Tampa), winning the vast majority of board battles, and playing great defense to close out games. The Caps don’t win the Cup without the Osh Babe. There’s a reason I blogged and tweeted “Pay the Man” throughout 2016-17.
  • Tom Wilson evolved into a complete player this campaign and “Top Line Willy” was just a wrecking ball and force all post season. He’s built for the playoffs.
  • John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmity Orlov, and trade deadline bargain Kempny played a lot of minutes on the blue line in four grueling series. “Big Game” Carlson showed how a number one defensemen should perform in the playoffs and I’ll say this again about him, “Pay the Man!” Niskanen was so solid and took the heat for he and Orlov’s rough game five in Tampa. That’s leadership, right there, and it took the pressure off of Dmitry, allowing Dima to get back on track quickly in game six.
  • Orpik was a team leading +17 in the post season and “Batya” had the key game winning goal in game two that turned the Stanley Cup Final around. For all of the grief the Corsi crew gives him, he thrived in the post season on defense, the PK, and he even chipped in offensively with five points.
  • Eller stepped up, especially when Backstrom broke his hand. He played second and third line center doing whatever was asked of him. The Capitals also don’t win the Cup without “Tiger.”
  • Jay Beagle was a beast on faceoffs all post season and a dominant force in all three zones. Nobody works harder than “Beags.”
  • Connolly (6 goals, 3 assists in the playoffs) was a totally different player from the guy who was scratched in the 2017 postseason by using his speed, great shot, and more importantly, his body to win puck and board battles.
  • Jakub Vrana and Andre Burakovsky used their skill and speed to score or set up huge goals. Vrana had the critical game winner in game five against the Pens and Andre notched two huge breakaway tallies in game seven to defeat the Bolts. Those two guys learned to win board battles by adding a physical element to their game and that was critical to the team’s success. They became excellent playoff style hockey players, something this squad badly needed after the off season losses of forwards Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson to the top six.
  • Chandler Stephenson (7 playoff points) played up and down the lineup and used his superior speed to set up goals and make opposing defensemen lose confidence. He was also a key cog on the penalty kill.
  • Smith-Pelly notched big goal after big goal, with his game going to an incredible level in the Cup Final after a rough game one.
  • Christian Djoos took advantage of the downtime down the regular season stretch he endured due to Jakub Jerabek’s strong play to jump back in against Columbus in game three and become part of a quality third pair duo with Orpik.
  • Even forwards such as Alex Chiasson (goal in game six against Pittsburgh), Nathan Walker (assist in game six against Pittsburgh), and Travis Boyd contributed when the injury bug and suspension to Wilson hit against the Pens.

Yes, this was a special crew of players because of how they united and after two very shaky games against Columbus, bought in to what the outstanding coaching staff was selling to go on a remarkable run. Washington was 16-6 beginning with game three of the first round. The switch to Holtbeast was a game or two late for me, but perhaps it was meant to be so that the rest of the club could finally understand the way they needed to play to have the ultimate success?

Yes, it’s true, Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals are really Stanley Cup Champions!!

When is the parade??!!

Addendum

The ride was absolutely amazing and for me, this championship is extra special. As a nine year old boy in 1974, my father was in the sports journalism business at WLMD in Laurel and dragged me time and time again to Capital Centre to watch a terrible expansion team play a sport that quickly got my attention. It wasn’t until I was a senior in high school in 1983 that the Capitals finally made the playoffs thanks to David Poile, Rod Langway, Scott Stevens, and Bryan Murray. That’s when hockey became my favorite sport. From there I covered the team for the PG Post-Sentinel for a few years, meeting current WNST owner Nestor Aparacio in the process. That press box stint led to a Capitals team statistician position with Dr. Mike Herr and several other great people for 11 years. From 1986 to 1997 I traveled to games in Philly and everywhere in the playoffs with the team enjoying really great times while learning so much about hockey from great players such as Langway and Dale Hunter, and hockey personnel Jack Button, although I learned even more from his son, Tod. But there were so many heartbreaks along the way and several times it was to the Penguins, who won five Stanley Cups, defeating the Caps each time. In 2007, Nestor reached out to me and told me he was starting a WNST website and he wanted me to blog on it, doing whatever I wanted since I was someone he trusted and had inside access given my time with the Caps. Naturally I’ve turned that into this Caps blog and regular radio show sessions with Nestor. We’ve chronicled the highs and even more heartbreak since 2008 during the Ovechkin era. I was able to be on the ice in Hershey when Carlson, Beagle, and Holtby won the Calder Cup in 2010 (thanks John Walton!). But in 2014, I had seen enough of a bad culture and the lack of a cohesive team that led to me calling for the firing of Coach Adam Oates and GM McPhee, and the hiring of Trotz. Three years of crushing playoff defeats followed in the Trotz and GM Brian MacLellan era, but on July 3, 2017, I penned a “Caps are still a contender blog” despite the fact that many had written the GM, coach, and players off. Thankfully the GM, the coaches, and the guys on the ice delivered in a way that many hockey fans around this area will appreciate for the rest of their lives. I know I will, but most of all, I really appreciate my father, Ed, who will turn 80 on July 7th, for introducing me to the Capitals and the sport of hockey. Exchanging texts with him after the Capitals won the Cup was a very special moment for me and many of the people who reached out to me afterwards are great people that I’ve met along the way watching, working, covering, and just being around this great sport. I’ve made so many lifelong and life changing friends and people through hockey. I’d need numerous blogs to list all of them, you know who you are! I owe all of it to my father, so thanks Dad! I know you predicted back in 1974 that the Caps would sell out every game some day and they’d win a Stanley Cup. You are now correct on both counts!

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Osh Babe SCF 4

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10 Thoughts on the Caps As They Try To Close Out Vegas

Posted on 05 June 2018 by Ed Frankovic

“All we need is one pin, Rodney”

That classic line from Ben Davidson to Rodney Dangerfield in that famed Miller Lite Commercial from way back in 1982 now applies to the Washington Capitals.

The Caps, who didn’t get much respect last summer or even in the early rounds of this spring’s playoffs, now have a chance to skate with the Stanley Cup with one more triumph in their best of seven series with the Vegas Golden Knights. Washington used a furious final 10 minutes of period one in game four to tally three times en route to a 4-0 lead after two periods and eventually a 6-2 victory.

Six different players lit the lamp for the Caps and now they head to Sin City for game five on Thursday night at 8 pm with a chance to take Lord Stanley.

What follows are 10 thoughts and analysis of a huge victory in front of another rowdy crowd at Capital One Arena.

I Got You Babe – The Caps had a very shaky first nine minutes with the Golden Knights missing some superb chances, including Reilly Smith misfiring from in tight when he appeared to have the left side of the cage available and then James Neal hitting the post on the power play with a yawning cage in front of him. After those misses, Vegas’ Colin Miller was called for a blatant trip of Lars Eller in the neutral zone at 9:22. Thirty-two seconds later, the Capitals fans were up and out of their seats when T.J. Oshie buried the rebound of an Evgeny Kuznetsov shot off of Marc-Andre Fleury (17 saves). Oshie going to the net for the loose change was a common theme in this affair for Washington, who primarily won the game because of their net presence and stronger net front protection on defense. The Osh Babe, who some wanted to be let go as a free agent last June, now has eight goals in this postseason and is fourth on the team in points (21). T.J.’s two assists were critical ones, as well. His first helper came on the power play when he won a puck battle in front of the Vegas net that allowed Kuzy to set up John Carlson for the fourth Caps tally. In period three, after Nicklas Backstrom won a board battle in the neutral zone against two Golden Knights, Oshie skated in and dropped the puck to Backy with Miller closing in on him. T.J. made contact with Miller, who immediately bent over covering his face. Backstrom would skate in and feed Michal Kempny cross ice for a dagger four on four goal that made it 5-2 with 6:21 remaining. Vegas coach Gerard Gallant afterwards said Miller broke his nose and that Oshie should’ve been penalized. To me, it was just a hockey play and Miller hasn’t won over the zebras with his penalties and moments of embellishment, especially against #77, in this series. The Osh Babe was relentless in his pursuit of the puck in this tilt and earned the game’s number one star in 17:37 of ice time. Oshie was also cross checked badly by the reckless Brayden McNabb with 2:16 remaining, but was fine after the contest.

Magic Man – Following up on his number one star performance in game three, Evgeny Kuznetsov had another spectacular affair with four assists in 20:37 of ice time and was named the night’s second star. Kuzy had the primary assists on three of the first four Caps goals, the first by shooting and generating a juicy rebound and the other two with gorgeous feeds to Tom Wilson and Carlson, respectively. Number 92 logged 20:37 of ice time and leads the entire NHL in playoff points (31). He has 12 goals and 19 assists and is a big reason why the Caps are in the Final and leading. All season long I’ve talked and blogged about how important he is to this team and he’s taken his game to superstar status this post season.

Under the Radar – Backstrom quietly had three assists in this victory while and he his linemates neutralized the Vegas top trio of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, and Riley Smith. Nicky’s two way play and shut down ability really allows Coach Barry Trotz to get some advantageous matchups, especially at home. Number 19 has 22 points in 19 playoff games and continues to be outstanding despite a less than 100% right hand.

Commitment – Washington blocked 24 shots in game four and 20 of them came from Capital blue liners. Brooks Orpik led the way with six while Kempny had five, and Matt Niskanen had four. Two of the four Caps forward blocked shots came on one shift, with Brett Connolly (1 goal) getting in the way of two point blasts. The Capitals continue to get in the shooting lanes while allowing their goaltender to see the shots, so if they don’t block it, he can make the save. At the other end, the Golden Knights only had eight shot blocks.

Power Station – The Caps power play went 0 for 4 in game three, but on Monday night they exploded with a three for five outing, including scoring on their first two attempts to break the game open in the first forty minutes. The initial PP marker came on the rush (Oshie’s rebound goal) and then the second was a real back breaker for Vegas, Carlson’s blast from the Ovi spot. Credit special teams coach, Blaine Forsythe, for adjusting things up front. An Alex Ovechkin and Carlson swap opened up a huge passing lane since the Golden Knights had a forward come up way high at the point to try and limit the Gr8, and Kuznetsov exploited it.

Last Line of Defense – This was far from the Caps best game overall as they gave up many high danger scoring chances, something they did a better job of limiting in game three. Fortunately for the Capitals, they blocked several shots and more importantly, Braden Holtby (28 saves) was once again dialed in. The Holtbeast continues to be the key for Washington in these playoffs with stellar goaltending, something you must have to win a Championship.

Be Good Johnny – “Big Game” Carlson continued his incredible season with a laser of a goal in 25:07 of team and game leading ice time. Carly took two penalties in the first half of the game, but was a force defensively with his positioning and most importantly, his zone clears. When the stakes get high, this guy always seems to up his game to another level. He has five goals and 14 assists in the 2018 post season. Pay the Man!

Land of Opportunity – Both teams had scoring chances in this game, but it’s been the Capitals who have made the most of their opportunities, after Vegas did so in game one, by getting to the front of the net and notching in close tallies on Fleury. Washington, after getting the lead, has taken advantage of the Vegas blue line pinching in the offensive zone to generate odd man rushes. Ovechkin had a pair of two on ones when the Capitals had a lead, but was too unselfish and forced a pass when the shot was there. In game five, the Gr8 needs to think shoot first, because he has the best one in the league and if Fleury makes the save, there’s a good chance a rebound will occur.

Road Warriors – The Caps are 9-3 on the road in the playoffs and a big reason is their ability to play the right way. Washington doesn’t get fancy and employs more of a north-south style away from Capital One Arena. Part of the Capitals poor first nine minutes on Monday was their inability to get pucks deep; there were too many east-west passes in the neutral zone. The Capitals are at their best when they have the lead and play that 1-1-3 formation that forces their opponents to really gamble to beat it. In game five, limiting turnovers, keeping Vegas on the perimeter, and crashing the net is the formula for success. This game is the first ever in Washington hockey history where they can win the Cup. As Coach Trotz stated after game four, he’s excited because the Caps still haven’t played their best game in this series yet. I concur, they have another level they can get to and it starts with good puck management.

“All we need is one win”

Notes – Washington lost the face off battle, 33-31, but the second Caps goal came off of a faceoff where Ovi put a nice stick lift check on Deryk Engelland to jar the puck free and start the cycle play…Jay Beagle went 8-7 to lead the Caps while Karlsson was 10-4 for Vegas…the Golden Knights had 39 hits to 29 for the Capitals. Orpik led Washington with six and Wilson had four…Shea Theodore led Vegas in ice time with 23:36…the end of the game turned into a mess when the Golden Knights lost their composure. McNabb hit Oshie with a bit of a cheap shot and then Ryan Reaves tried to go after several Caps, including Orpik, before being tossed by referees Chris Rooney and Kelly Sutherland. Engelland and Oshie were also given late misconducts…in a classy move, Caps radio play by play man, John Walton, brought back long time Caps broadcaster (1974-1997), Ron Weber, to call the game’s first period. Afterwards I caught up with JW and congratulated him on the move. John responded by stating that “Ron was a plus three!”

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Ovi Game 3 SCF

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Caps Take Series Lead With First Home Stanley Cup Final Triumph

Posted on 03 June 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Devante Smith-Pelly scored for Washington and Braden Holtby stopped 21 of 22 shots to lead the Capitals to a 3-1 victory in front of 18,506 raucous fans at Capital One Arena on Saturday night. The triumph was the Caps first ever win on home ice in the Stanley Cup Final and they now lead the best of seven series, two games to one. Game four is Monday night in DC.

This was the event of the year in town and the pregame featured a concert from Sting and Shaggy outside the arena and then Wheel of Fortune’s Pat Sajak, a long time Capitals season ticket holder, announced the pregame lineups where every Vegas player, except for former Capital Nate Schmidt, was booed.

The Capitals did a lot of things correct and still have things to clean up, so here are eight thoughts and analysis on this win that moves the team closer to their ultimate goal.

Do The Bird – Kuznetsov was injured on a hit by Brayden McNabb in period one of the second game and since that time, the Capitals have been a different team. Washington amped up their play without Kuzy in a 3-2 victory and on Saturday night, the tougher than you think Russian with high end skill returned to the lineup. Number 92 was flying in this affair in an attempt to prove that he will not be intimidated by physical play and his shot from the slot eventually set up Ovechkin’s net crashing tally that put Washington on the board just 1:10 into period two. At 12:50 of the middle frame, he put a serious dagger into Vegas’ hopes in this contest. T.J. Oshie did a great job of blocking a shot by Shea Theodore and he gathered in the disc and fed it to Jay Beagle in the neutral zone. Beags took off up ice with Kuzy on a two on one and Jay alertly gave the puck to the wizard to his right very quickly. Evgeny skated in and with the Golden Knights Colin Miller shading Beagle in an attempt to cut off the pass, Kuznetsov sailed in closer on Marc-Andre Fleury and put a superstar shot past the goalie over the right pad, under the blocker and off of the inside of the far post for a huge tally. The $7.8 million dollar man showed up big time on the game’s largest stage to lead the Capitals to a monumental win. He logged 18:52 of ice time, had six shot attempts, including four on net, and won five of seven draws. Kuznetsov was named the game’s number one star and deservedly so.

Come on now

Whawk! Hallelujah! Whoa

Whawk! Hallelujah! Whoa

Follow the Leader – Ovechkin had another beastly game and he nearly scored in the first two minutes when Kuznetsov fed him on a two on one, but Fleury somehow got his glove on his attempt. Ovi would not be denied on this night and his goal, on a rebound of John Carlson’s shot, was reminiscent of his 600th career goal against Winnipeg this year. This one came on a backhander with bodies strewn all over the ice in a goal mouth scramble. It was pure grit and determination by the Gr8 and his linemates, with Tom Wilson having a wrecking ball of a shift. The goal put the somewhat anxious crowd at ease and allowed Washington to play the style they wanted while Vegas had to start chasing the game. Alex had 10 shot attempts in this outing and five were on net in 17:28 of action. He also had two hits and two blocked shots. The blocked shots are something the Capitals have done a very good job of in this series and when the other players see Ovi “all in” and doing the little things like that, it energizes the team and motivates them to put themselves on the line, as well.

Defense Wins Championships – Washington, after their own zone struggles in the first game of this series, have become much better at team defense and walling off the front of their net. In game three they blocked 26 shots and the Holtbeast noted afterwards that the communication between the shot blocker and himself have been good to make sure the right lanes are taken away and he can see the shots. Vegas’ only goal was on a giveaway by Holtby in period three, but the Golden Knights did have some quality chances to score. In period two, Cody Eakin, Jonathan Marchessault, and Alex Tuch all had grade “A” opportunities, but either missed the net or Holtby made the save. Afterwards, Vegas Coach Gerard Gallant agreed that his team had the potential to score more goals, but noted that they were not able to get the second or third attempts to penetrate the Washington net. This is a credit to the Capitals team defense. Coach Barry Trotz noted that the Caps turned the page quickly on game one and seem to be finding their better levels again, but he didn’t like the chances the Golden Knights received in period two. The Capitals were certainly stingier in period three, especially after the Tomas Nosek goal just 3:29 into the final stanza. Coach Trotz also said that they can certainly get even better in limiting Vegas’ offense going forward.

“We probably gave them a little bit more zone time than we would have liked, but certainly the high danger areas we did pretty good with,” stated big game player, Carlson, afterwards.

Breaking the Fore Check – Vegas is a fast skating, straight line team that comes at you in your own end with speed and size. Washington has adapted to that style as this series as gone on, but it’s imperative that the first pass is a good one, because when it’s not, the Golden Knights swarm and use that fore check to generate goals. That’s where Holtby’s ability to play the puck makes a big difference. Despite that one miscue, the Holtbeast has been very good at stopping the dump ins and getting the puck to one of his defensemen where they can make a solid read and get the disc going the other way quickly. As for the Capitals blue liners, they have continued to improve from game one with their decision making. We saw fewer giveaways in game three and more quality passes that are leading to opportunities at the other end. The Caps must continue that trend if they are going to take game four.

Let’s Get Physical – This series has continued to be very physical as it’s progressed and the Caps outhit Vegas, 38-31, and this was not because the Golden Knights dominated possession. Washington is doing a good job of hitting the Vegas blue line in their own end and there have been lots of Capitals hits on Vegas forwards along the walls and on the backboards in Washington’s end. Wilson, Smith-Pelly, Beagle, and Ovechkin combined for 12 hits while the trio of Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, and Michal Kempny had 11. The hitting is important for the Capitals because it helps wear down the Vegas defensemen and slow down their transition game.

Full Speed Ahead – All post season, it has been so important for the Capitals to get the lead. When you are ahead at the game’s midpoint, you start forcing your opponent to change their strategy and gamble more often. The opponents will activate their defense and this opens up the opportunity for counter attacks, if you play well in your end and get the puck out to the right places. Washington has improved with that and in games two and three they’ve locked the lead down well. If not for Fleury (23 saves), game three would have been a bigger spread on the scoreboard, something Vegas Coach Gallant noted afterwards. The Caps third goal with just over six minutes remaining was the cumulative result of being physical and taking the counter attack when presented. Beagle made a super play in the offensive zone to force a Theodore turnover and then Smith-Pelly read the play perfectly and broke to the net all alone. His top shelf cheese that beat Fleury was a high skill event and a big make up for his giveaway in game one on the Nosek winning tally. It was a huge goal from the fourth line and Washington continues to get production from all of its players.

“It’s good to get contributions from everyone, we expect that, whether it’s goals or blocks or just getting the puck out on the wall. Everything matters so much, at this point. It’s good to see those guys get rewarded for their hard work,” added Carlson after the game on the Smith-Pelly goal that was set up by Beagle.

Where Do We Go From Here? – This was the first time all post season the Capitals have won the first home game of a series so now they have a chance to take a strangle hold 3-1 lead on Monday night. Vegas has endured their first two game losing streak of the playoffs and now have to deal with some adversity. Washington has been accused of lacking killer instinct in the past and now they have a chance to rewrite more narratives in game four. They must do, as Coach Trotz said, get even better with their game because the Golden Knights will be desperate to tie things up. You don’t get opportunities like this very often, so the Caps must seize the moment.

Notes: Orpik was hit hard up high in period two and didn’t play the last 12:25, but Coach Trotz said he was fine after the game…the blue line trio of Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, and Carlson logged 27:16, 26:04, and 22:23 of ice time, respectively. Orpik only played 11:57 and Christian Djoos had just 8:40 of ice time…Schmidt led Vegas in TOI with a low total of 21:12…the Caps were 0 for 4 on the power play while Vegas went 0 for 2…shot attempts were 62-58 for the Golden Knight thanks to a 19-13 period three advantage for Vegas, who started that frame down two goals…the Capitals were much better on draws in game three, going 39-23. Nicklas Backstrom was 11-7, Lars Eller 10-7, and Oshie went 5-0. Getting the puck first against a fast Vegas team is very important…the crowd at Capital One Arena was extremely loud, especially once the Capitals seized the lead. They also didn’t panic after the Holtby giveaway that made it 2-1. They stuck behind their squad.

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Holtby, Eller, and Orpik lead Caps to a Gritty Game 2 Win

Posted on 31 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Braden Holtby made 37 saves, including what was likely the greatest stop in Caps history on Alex Tuch with 1:59 remaining, to lead the Washington Capitals to a 3-2 victory in game two of the Stanley Cup Final. The triumph evens the series up at one as things move to Capital One Arena for games three and four on Saturday and Monday, respectively.

Things started slowly again for the Capitals as they struggled with the swarming speed and intensity of Vegas. James Neal grabbed a flipped puck out of the air at the Caps defensive blue line away from Dmitry Orlov, who failed to get the disc with his glove, as well as the man. Neal skated in and beat the Holtbeast far side 7:58 into this affair. The shot appeared to change direction slightly when Michal Kempny put his stick into the shooting lane.

At 14:39 of period one, it would get worse for Washington. Brayden McNabb put a hard and slightly high hit on Evgeny Kuzentsov in the neutral zone and with Kuzy putting his arms up to brace himself for the collision he went down on the ice holding his left arm. Per Capitals PR, he suffered an upper body injury and was questionable to return, but never did. Afterwards Caps Coach Barry Trotz had no update on the Russian’s status, but did take issue with the contact stating that the league would look at it for potential supplemental discipline.

At that point, given Vegas’ series and game lead, the Capitals looked to be in big trouble. But this resilient Washington team seemed to be galvanized by the Kuznetsov injury and immediately began playing much better.

Nearly three minutes later, in a four on four situation with T.J. Oshie and Deryk Engelland in the box for roughing, the Caps tied things up. Lars Eller (one goal, two assists) won an offensive zone draw and pushed the puck to Andre Burakovsky in the right wing corner. Burkie hit Kempny in the high slot forcing Marc Andre-Fleury to come out and challenge. Kempny spotted Eller at the far post and the man nicknamed “Tiger” buried the great pass for the equalizer.

In the second frame, the Capitals seemed to find their game. Tuch was jailed for cross checking John Carlson in front of the Caps net at 5:13 and just 25 seconds later the Capitals grabbed the lead. Nicklas Backstrom fed Eller on the goal line to Fleury’s left. Lars then threaded a super pass through Fleury to Alex Ovechkin on the back side. The Gr8 used his great hands to get off a quick shot that hit the back of the Vegas goaltender and into the cage.

Just over four minutes later, Washington took its first two goal lead of the series. Burakovsky fed Eller on the rush and #20 drove to the middle of the ice in the offensive zone. Lars then made a superb dish to his right to Brooks Orpik, who was jumping up in the play. Orpik fired on net and with Brett Connolly battling with Tuch in front of Fleury, the puck hit the Vegas forward and the left post before crossing the goal line. The Washington players went nuts given the goal scorer, who had a 220 game goalless drought end. In addition to the long drought, “Batya” is who Coach Trotz referred to as the most respected player on the team, so everyone was excited when he tallied in a such a big game.

Shortly thereafter Jakub Vrana hit the post, otherwise it would’ve been 4-1. Vegas then had a push for several minutes across the last two periods that was aided by four straight minor penalties on the Caps. On the second infraction, which was on Oshie for interference despite Colin Miller’s embellishment, Shea Theodore ripped a point shot through a maze of bodies to beat Holtby with 2:13 left in period two.

Heading into the last stanza the Caps were up 3-2 and they survived a 68 second Golden Knights five on three power play just under five minutes in. The Capitals penalty killing unit was outstanding creating what Coach Trotz called another galvanizing moment for his squad. Typically these events decide a hockey game one way or the other and it was the Caps who parlayed the key special teams situation into a one goal victory, but not before several close calls and big saves from the Holtbeast.

This was a massive win for the Capitals and they have a chance to take the series lead on home ice. The game two triumph was not pretty, but it was gutsy and gritty. Guys were selling out to block shots and diving to clear the disc from their own end throughout the last 14 minutes at even strength. Even the Captain was contributing in the defensive heroics and Coach Trotz mentioned when an elite goal scorer is doing it, everyone on the bench takes notice and follows suit.

After the slow start, nearly everyone had a good game starting with Holtby, who was dialed in. Matt Niskanen agreed that the team did a good job of simplifying their play on the mushy Vegas ice by getting multiple players to the loose pucks. Washington won a lot of little battles in this one and did a much better job with defensive zone coverage. It was a total team effort with one of their top players out due to injury.

As I’ve stated since this series started, Vegas is a hard working team and is not a fluke. If the Capitals want to win this series, they’ll need to bring the will they brought to game two each night going forward.

Notes: the Caps were 1 for 2 on the power play while Vegas went 1 for 5…the Golden Knights won the face-off battle, 38-27. Eller was 10-6. Jay Beagle said the Capitals will look at film to help make the necessary adjustments to win more draws…shot attempts were 69-44, for Vegas, but a lot of those came from the perimeter…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time at 27:13, including 5:25 of PK time…Orpik had six hits and two blocked shots in 19:13 of playing time. He was outstanding in this contest…Vrana played well using his speed to open up space. He had eight shot attempts, but only three on net. If he gets them on goal, he’ll take over the red light district…once Kuzy went out, Backstrom centered Ovi and Tom Wilson, Eller centered Oshie and Vrana, while Chandler Stephenson moved into the 3rd line pivot slot.

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VGK Finals

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Caps Will Face A Strong and Confident Vegas Squad in the Stanley Cup Final

Posted on 27 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

For the first time in 20 years the Washington Capitals will be playing in the Stanley Cup Final. The last time they managed to win three rounds, in 1998, they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings, who would win their second straight title with a loaded team. In those days, there wasn’t an NHL salary cap, so many of the bigger market franchises were able to stack their rosters up with talent by spending more money. Go back and take a look at that Red Wings roster, coached by the legendary Scotty Bowman, and you’ll see the names of many Hall of Fame players such as Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Larry Murphy.

In 2018, outspending other teams by wide margins is no longer the case with the salary cap in place along with last season’s NHL expansion draft. Former Capitals General Manager George McPhee, who knew he would be getting a good player from all 30 teams, did a marvelous job of assembling a roster that is big and fast. Not many picked the Vegas Golden Knights to make the playoffs, but they bonded together after the tragedy at the country music festival last October outside Mandalay Bay, rode goalie Marc Andre-Fleury to some early wins when they were outplayed, and then found a lot of confidence along the way en route to the Pacific Division title.

This Golden Knights squad is no fluke and their accomplishments should be celebrated, because they earned it defeating the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, and Winnipeg Jets in just 15 playoff games. Coach Gerard Gallant and his staff have done a masterful job of getting each player to buy in and play a north-south style of hockey with speed and size. Heading into the season, there were no star players on this roster, other than the three time Stanley Cup Champion goaltender, and each player arrived with a hunger to be a regular player and make a mark in this league. Boy did this squad stick to the script, turning a “Land of Misfit Toys” type group into the Western Conference Champions.

They have star players now, and it starts up front with their top line of William Karlsson (43 goals), Jonathan Marchessault (27 goals), and Riley Smith. Both Karlsson and Marchessault have had career years and moved into the star category this season. Those two have 14 of the 43 goals that Vegas has scored this post season and Smith also has added two tallies to go with his 14 assists. They are a formidable top line and the Capitals have to be careful not make mistakes against them because they will burn Washington with odd man rushes using their speed. The Caps need to continue to play a north-south style and avoid offensive zone blue line cross ice passes against the whole Golden Knights squad, but especially this top line. I look for Coach Barry Trotz to try and get Nicklas Backstrom’s line, with T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana and the Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen blue line duo out against the Marchessault trio, which averages right around 20 minutes a game in time on ice, as much as possible in this series.

Vegas’ second line at the end of the Winnipeg series was centered by the speedy Erik Haula and flanked by former Nashville Predator James Neal, and the big and superfast Alex Tuch. That trio has combined for 13 goals this post season. This line is downright scary in terms of speed and Tuch and Neal bring a lot of grit, too. They are great on the fore check and Neal is a supremely talented offensive player that knows how to go to the net. There are times, depending on the matchups, where Tuch gets moved to the third line and David Perron, who missed four playoff games due to injury, plays on the second unit. Either way, this is a line that you better not go to sleep on when they are on the ice.

Former Capital Cody Eakin and Ryan Carpenter are mainstays on the third line and complete the top nine for Vegas. Eakin is a very fast player, but is not big, while Carpenter, at six feet one, plays with size and is strong on the boards. It will be interesting to see if Gallant puts this line against the Caps top line of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Alex Ovechkin, and Tom Wilson or he tries to match the Neal-Haula-Tuch unit against Ovi and company.

Rounding out Vegas’ forwards are Pierre Edouard-Bellemare, Tomas Nosek, Ryan Reaves, and former Red Wing, Tomas Tatar. Tatar has had pass success against Washington, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him promoted back into the lineup versus the Caps. Bellemare, a former Flyer, is a prototypical fourth line player that is strong on the puck and does a great job of killing penalties. Reaves is a big force and a protector, so the key for the Caps is to not have Wilson get engaged with the big man who scored the game winner that put Vegas into the Stanley Cup Final. Will Carrier, who has been out injured and practiced on Sunday in a non-contact jersey, could be back in later in the series to provide physical play on the fourth line, as well. The Capitals need Willy on the ice in this series and not in the penalty box.

On the back end, the Golden Knights are led by former Caps defensemen, Nate Schmidt. Schmidty is a popular guy who skates extremely well and moves the puck out of his zone quickly. He also has a strong shot and leads Vegas in average ice time in the playoffs (24:53 per contest). Number 88 is often on the ice with former Los Angeles King Brayden McNabb (average of 22:02 per game in the playoffs). Their second defensive pair is the physical former Penguin and Flame, Deryk Engelland, and Shea Theodore. Engelland fits the Brooks Orpik mold for Vegas in that he’s physical and is a penalty killing specialist. The blue line is strong for the Western Conference Champions as evidenced by a third duo of Colin Miller and Luca Sbisa. Sbisa is a very good puck mover, while the six foot one Miller brings size and a big shot on the power play.

In net, the Capitals will try to defeat Fleury for the first time in the post season. Number 29 has given up lots of tallies to the Caps in the past, but when the chips are on the line, he’s 2-0 in game sevens allowing only two goals. He’s the single biggest reason that the 2016-17 Presidents’ Trophy Winning Washington Capitals squad lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pens in round two. Fleury has been on fire in goal as Vegas has rolled through these playoffs and he clearly has taken his performance to a new level under former Capitals goalie coach, Dave Prior.

On special teams, the Golden Knights are a super penalty killing team (82.5% in the post season) and can burn you with shorthanded goals, if you aren’t careful. Karlsson is especially dangerous there. On the power play (17.6%) they rely a lot on shots from the top of the point with net presence. Both Schmidt and Miller have cannons and guys like Neal and Smith are strong at tipping pucks or potting rebounds. You also have to really watch Marchessault and Karlsson because they can pass the puck and have been successful finding that cross box seam play that has hurt the Capitals this postseason. Washington’s penalty killing crew is only at 75.4% in this playoff run, so the Caps must be better there to have a chance to win this series.

Vegas comes into this series as the favorites given their success that has led to supreme confidence, home ice advantage (only lost once at T-Mobile Arena this spring), and the fact that they are healthier and more rested than the Caps, who have played four more games. As has been the case in the past two Capitals series, having the lead by the game’s midway point will be crucial to the winner of each contest as both teams have very good goalies and a strong defensive posture that makes coming back from a deficit very difficult.

The outcome could go either way and one thing is for sure, one of these franchises is going to win their first Stanley Cup!

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